Terry Allen: The Silent Majority (Terry Allen’s Greatest Missed Hits)

[29 August 2005]

By Steve Horowitz

All true art is subversive and should inspire its audience to see the world differently. Terry Allen is an artist who aims for that effect in a number of different media that includes painting, print making, sculpture, film, video, theatre, radio plays, installations, and fiction. The Lubbock, Texas native has won numerous awards and honors and been a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellow. Allen’s artwork can be found at such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. But Allen is best known as an iconoclastic musician. He writes satiric lyrics that bite, tender tunes that move one’s heart, and fuses Eastern and Western traditions in ways that show connections where one did not realize they existed. Allen’s works frequently make one think.

This collection of Allen’s odds and sods was originally released on the Fate Records label back in 1992. Sugar Hill Records has re-released the disc as part of the company’s effort to make all of Allen’s work available. These songs come from a wide range of projects such as soundtracks to other people’s movies, plays, and dance projects, or tunes that just did not fit on his other albums. Much of the material was recorded with different groups of local musicians in Austin, Texas and Madras, India.

The Texas songs include the weirdly acerbic “Cocktail Desperado”, featured in David Byrne’s film True Stories. The title character has “got a little bitty head to go with that great big mouth” as his gold teeth chew up the “television dreams” of society’s “have nots”. Allen’s vocals are backed by Dixieland-style jazz instrumentation that includes an oom-pah tuba and blaring trumpet. The Lone Star artist is even more cynical in his “Arizona Spiritual”. Allen sings the name of Jesus Mexican-style as “Hey-Zeus”. The singer croons:

“Jesus what’s the use in your dyin’, /
When there ain’t nobody ‘round even tryin’, /
Yeah you went for your cross, /
But you drew slow and lost.”

The tune’s desolate Old West imagery highlights the uselessness of Jesus’ sacrifice. The so-called Son of God would be just another casualty of human cruelty in Arizona. Lloyd Maines’ sparse production reinforces this message. It’s just Allen playing the piano and singing while Maines adds a touch of Dobro, guitar, or tambourine at opportune moments.

When Allen was a young man, he was a member of an early version of Little Feat with Lowell George. Later, George and the band recorded Allen’s “New Delhi Freight Train”. The Lubbock native does a version here with a group of Indian musicians who play traditional instruments, such as the veena, santoor, mridangam, tabla, kohi, dolak, and tambora. The exotic stringed instruments and percussion create a rambling rhythm that sure enough resembles the sound of a freight train traveling on the tracks. One can hear the locomotive strain as it goes uphill, then pick up steam as it goes down the slope and feel the shaking back and forth of the cars caused by the energy expended. As Allen sings about a country boy named Jesse James who goes way out East to ride the rails of the legendary New Delhi Freight Train, one realizes the romanticism of train transportation is an international phenomenon. You can’t help but wonder about Asian versions of Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Cash who make their versions of train songs without guitars.

The most ambitious track is the three-part, seven-plus minute long “Loneliness”, from Margaret Jenkins’ dance production of the same name. Allen ventures into the bizarre as he tells of Mamma Lonesome Rose’s descent into insanity:

“She was making Dream People out of parts of the living room, /
Sounds like a goofy voodoo movie or something—But anyway, /
She’d take chairs and tables and put useless items on them. /
You know, crap like forks and ashtrays or pieces of strings and sticks and little pieces of cloth or something, /
And she’d give every one of them a name . . .”

Allen would narrate. One can only imagine the dance taking place on stage. The lonely feeling referred to by the song’s title becomes increasingly palpable. The song ends with the sound of an unanswered ringing telephone that lasts for a long 30 seconds.

The disc’s short cuts carry a punch that becomes enhanced by their brevity. Consider his minute-and-a-half dirge, “Advice to Children”. Allen tells kids, in a voice worn with the experience of age, that it’s better to be mediocre than to be really good at anything. “And don’t ever do, / The best you can do, / ‘Cause they’ll just screw you over” he warns, because America is a nation of prescription drug-addled consumers who cause those who stand out to suffer. It’s difficult to know if Allen’s playing it straight, cynical, or being ironic—but that’s the point. He’s making you think.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/allenterry-silent/